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The Darwinian dynamic of sexual selection that Thorstein Veblen missed and its relevance to institutional economics

Jon Wisman ()

Journal of Institutional Economics, 2019, vol. 15, issue 1, 49-72

Abstract: Thorstein Veblen was a pioneer in recognizing the necessity of grounding social science in Darwinian biology and exploring how evolving institutions channel biological proclivities. He especially focused upon how capitalism's social institutions guided the innate need for social status into conspicuous consumption. But why do humans seek status? Surprisingly, Veblen did not pick up on Darwin's concept of sexual selection and recognize it as the driving force behind behavior intended to favorably impress others. This article adds the Darwinian depth that Veblen missed to his understanding of the biologically driven quest for status and its channeling by social institutions. It then explores the turn of most institutionalists away from Veblen's focus on innate behavioral drives in favor of viewing human behavior as more exclusively determined by social conditions. It concludes with reflections on the implications of sexual selection and biological grounding more generally for a theory of institutional economics.

Date: 2019
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